“The Soldiers All Love McClellan”: Even Robert Gould Shaw

I am beginning to see the outlines of an argument. Our tendency to focus on the last six months of Col. Robert Gould Shaw’s military career in command of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry has left us with an incomplete and even distorted view of his place in Civil War memory. We tend to see his parents, specifically his mother, as pushing him to see the necessity of recruiting African Americans into the army thus transforming the very purpose of the Union war effort.

But the more I read, the more I am beginning to think that Shaw’s core view of the war, which was forged before he accepted command of the 54th, changed little before his death in July 1863. We need to remember that Shaw spent over a year as an officer in the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. It was during this time that he learned how to command others and lead them into battle. Shaw’s understanding of the purpose of the war as well as his perceptions of the enemy and African Americans also took shape during this period.

Shaw’s parents were fervent supporters of the Lincoln administration and the Republican Party throughout the war, but Robert may have been more influenced on a number of fronts by his interactions with fellow officers in the 2nd Mass, many of whom were fervent Democrats. One of the things that I am currently working on is a political profile of the regiment as a way to better understand Shaw’s own correspondence.

Here is one example. Shaw expressed support for General George B. McClellan even after he was removed from command in October 1862. He shared his thoughts about “Little Mac” with his family, including his mother and father who called for his removal earlier that year.

Among his fellow officers I have found strong support for McClellan, including Captain Edward Abbott, who commanded Company A.

There are many fearful rumors afloat that Gen. McClellan is to be removed from his command. I can’t believe the President to be so foolish but should it happen, then every officer should at once resign… The fact is that Washington politics are beginning to get afraid of McClellan. He is growing too big & he is besides a Democrat. After the Republicans had brought the country to the verge of ruin, they were obliged to call a Democrat to the helm and now when he has rescued the country from destruction and almost subdued the rebels, they strive to throw him over… It is rather singular that the two great generals of this war McClellan & Halleck are Democrats. The soldiers all love McClellan and are angry that he is being hampered that his commands are being taken away from him… The whole hope of the country is upon him at Yorktown. [April 20, 1862, Camp near Sparta, Va]

I don’t want to make too much from one example. Again, the goal is to better understand the extent to which Shaw’s own thoughts correspond with his fellow officers in the regiment and Democratic support. From there I hope to be on firmer ground in assessing the extent to which Shaw’s thoughts on a range of issues evolved during the period he was in command of the 54th.

[Image source: Officers of the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry at Camp Andrew, MHS]

15 comments add yours

  1. Fascinating.

    I know this isn’t your point, but I’m curious. I know that McClellan was popular with the troops, but I’ve never understood why. The above letter was written before the debacles of the Seven Days and 2nd Manassas, did McClellan’s popularity hold up after those defeats?

    • From the different soldiers letters I’ve read/transcribed even after Antietam, McClellan was still preferred by the rank and file, surprisingly enough.

      • This is typical example of what I’ve come across, written by a Private in 19th Indiana after Antietam:
        “they have removed gen Mclellan and put gen burnside in his place / I do not like the change my self nor none of the soldiers either / they all think verry well
        of burnside but they want mclellan or none / there is considerable of dissatisfaction expressed both rank and file.”

  2. I realize I need to know more about McClellan. As with the comment above, I’ve often wondered why his troops loved him so much, besides the fact that he trained them well. Is there a recommended biography of McClellan I should seek out?

    Thanks, Kevin.

    • The best place to start with McClellan is still Stephen Sears’s biography, but if you want to dig in with something a bit more analytical, I highly recommend Ethan Rafuse’s McClellan’s War.

  3. McClellan was, for the time, a sort of rock star. He looked and acted like a general and had some early success to back him up. More importantly, he prioritized the welfare of his men. It is important to remember that at this point in the war the men were not far removed from civilian life and didn’t have the toughness they acquired later. McClellan put a light yoke on them in terms of discipline, saw they were paid and fed on-time, and communicated to them in a paternalistic way. He was cautious with the army, which was a valued trait if it happened to be your life which was in the balance. In terms of the conflict which he engendered with the administration, his politics (Democrat with strong Whig influences) was in line with many of his men in the east. Republican policies and personalities were better received in the west and among recent arrivals (for example the Germans). Democrats cast the war in terms of Union while Republicans were seen as influenced by abolitionists, who were popular in some parts of the Union and much less so in others. When McClellan failed and made excuses his troops were predisposed to defend their father figure and attribute his lack of success to interference by Republican leadership in Washington, seen as distant from the realities of the field. As the war wore on the troops toughened and the administration gradually wrestled influence away from generals aligned with the Democrats. It was an interesting dynamic and, in many ways, was a war being fought within a war.

    • The 1864 election backs up this assessment. The soldiers overwhelmingly voted for Lincoln over McClellan, which represented in part the growth in understanding Lincoln’s vision of the war over that of McClellan. Of course this should not discount a sizeable minority of soldiers that continued to favor McClellan until the end of the war.

  4. Shaw may have had friends who were Democrats and supported McClellan as a war leader, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he shared their views on how the war was conducted.

    ‘I am afraid our government will be persuaded to come to terms with the Rebels; I would rather stay here all my life than see that. Every reverse we have will make the ”peace party” stronger, I should think, and foreign intervention more possible’. Robert Gould Shaw December 1862 in a letter to Annie Haggerty.

    It is also worth noting that among McClellan’s admirers was Charles Russell Lowell, a man more dedicated to abolitionism than Shaw. Although I disagree with your view that Shaw’s view of the war ‘changed little’ by the time of his death. While duty was still the main reason for Shaw fighting, his view on the role the slaves played changed quite drastically he believed that black troops would encourage slaves out of the plantations (see Shaw’s letter to Charles Morse March 23 1863) and while based in Georgia and South Carolina he wrote some intelligent comments regarding slavery role in the war, most notably the following:

    ”A deserted homestead is always a sad sight, but here in the South we must look a little deeper than the surface, and then we see that every over-grown plantation, and empty house, is a harbinger to the freedom of the slaves, and that every lover of his country, even if they have no feeling for the slaves themselves, should rejoice’. Robert Gould Shaw June 1863 to Annie Haggerty.

    • Again, thanks for the push back. I am not suggesting that Shaw’s views lined up perfectly with those in the regiment who identified as Democrats. I am simply interested in the extent that he may have been influenced by such views.

      • It’s definitely an interesting topic worth talking about, I probably shouldn’t have jumped in so quickly.

        One usual thing about Shaw’s views to how the war was conducted is that he appears to be a secessionist at heart. A particularly interesting letter worth looking at is a letter to Robert’s sister Josephine on 23 December 1862 in which he describes those views. His idea is obviously different to that of the Democrats and the Confederacy however and more resembles a desire to see the South being cut off in a way quite similar to how Germany was after the Great War.

        I don’t know whether emancipation of the slaves would have been involved in this plan, especially as in an earlier letter to his mother, he says that after the war the emancipation proclamation would be a ‘great thing’. Either way that letter is definitely one of the more interesting ones from his pre-54th Massachusetts days.

        • No apologies necessary.

          Shaw’s mother certainly played a role after his death in framing her son’s wartime career as decidedly embracing emancipation and black service. That early attempt at shaping his memory has survived and is most apparent in the movie Glory. I am trying to look at Shaw anew apart from his service in the 54th to gain a clearer sense of the ways in which his outlook evolved by the end of his life. Unfortunately, I think Shaw tends to be interpreted through this emancipationist lens with little context.

          I am in the very early stages of this project and expect that my views will evolve as I read more. Comments like this are incredibly helpful to me.

  5. Just food for thought, but much of McClellan’s appeal had little to do with politics, or his politics. Soldiers like who they like. Soldiers in the AoT loved Joe Johnston, and he is basically McClellan in a gray uniform.

    • Absolutely. I was thinking about in connection to how Shaw’s parents viewed McClellan.

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